By Ed Neumann, July 08, 2012
Beneath the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican lie the supposed remains of the prince of apostles himself, including much of his skull.
Curiously, the clergy of the Cathedral of St. John Lateran also claim to house Peter’s skull in their reliquary. Such was the result of the highly lucrative medieval relic trade.
The forgery mill started early on in church history, when Queen Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine, visited the Holy Land and “found” the Holy Sepulcher of Jesus — three centuries after the crucifixion. Those who stood to benefit financially from her fervor were only too happy to furnish her with whatever relics she wanted.
It was said she brought the “true cross” back to Constantinople (though her contemporary, Bishop Eusebius, failed to mention that detail when reporting on her journey.) Later rumors suggested she had retrieved the skulls of the three wise men as well.
This “pious fraud” began a cottage industry, and soon every sacred biblical object one could imagine had been manufactured and distributed. By the 10th century, Constantinople was purported to have been packed with the most unlikely relics. Among these were Noah’s axe, a branch from the burning bush, Jericho’s trumpets, the throne of David, 12 baskets used for feeding the 5,000 and even a feather from one of the angel Gabriel’s wings.
As cathedrals and abbeys sprouted up across Europe and the Near East, they were sanctified and legitimized by acquiring sacred objects, often paying dearly for them. For instance, Canterbury Cathedral displayed a sample of clay left over from God’s creation of Adam, and Voltaire noted that at least six churches claimed to possess the Savior’s foreskin.
Bizarrely, St. Catherine of Siena purportedly wore one of these Holy Prepuces as a ring. Throughout the centuries, pilgrims would travel great distances just to be in the presence of such magical items, as they were thought to bestow health and good fortune.
The bones and blood of saints were touted to hold special powers as well. By the Middle Ages, bones, teeth, hair and garments of fictitious saints were conveniently found and triumphantly installed under the altars of every house of worship until Catholic Europe was falling to its knees before what the Protestant reformer John Calvin called “an anthill of bones.”
By his time, a number of churches boasted Christ’s umbilical cord, and few were unable to produce a vial of Mother Mary’s milk. And nearly every house of worship was alleged to hold pieces of the Holy Rood. In fact, Calvin once quipped that across Christendom there were enough splinters of the True Cross for a large shipload. This profitable relic business did much to enhance the clergy’s status, attract the faithful, and increase church finances.
In the sixteenth century, Calvin made a list of some of these sacred artifacts:
Two churches claimed to possess the Holy Grail.
Fourteen had nails used in the crucifixion, more than 30 nails in all.
Eighteen possessed whole or partial thorny crowns.
Five claimed the blood of Christ.
Three housed the body of Lazarus.
Two claimed all three Magi remains.
Two retained the body of Mary Magdalene.
Six alleged to keep the head of John the Baptist.
And recall the Roman soldier Longinus who was said to have pierced the crucified savior’s side with his lance. His name was a medieval invention originating from a Greek word meaning “spear.”
It was around that time when there arose rumors of the Holy Lance’s survival. Today, no fewer than four specimens of this “Spear of Destiny” are exhibited in European churches. They can’t all be genuine, so why should we assume any of them are?
It has been said that Mary left enough shoes, stockings, girdles and wedding rings to fill a museum, and there was enough of her hair to stuff a mattress. Scores of Christ’s baby teeth had turned up, too, and Peter’s toenails taken together could have filled a large sack.
And there have been about two dozen “authentic” burial shrouds of Jesus — Turin’s 14th century biblical blanket being the most famous. But in those early days, with no effective methods to authenticate all of this holy hardware, the truthfulness of these dubious claims had to be taken on the seller’s word alone.
Upon examining the evidence, the whole idea of genuine sacred relics should strain the credulity of even the most ardent believer. If not, the Orleans Cathedral may still offer reconstituted wine samples that were transformed from water by Jesus himself — that is, for those who offer a sizable donation.